GUSTINE -- Police and sheriff's detectives hope autopsies scheduled today will shed light on what killed an elderly Gustine couple Wednesday night in their burning home.
Gustine Police Department Sgt. Devon Stavrowsky said Joseph Richard Castro, 87, and Ezaltina "Tina" Castro, 84, were found dead by firefighters in their 1433 Olsen Drive home where they had lived for many years. Their two dogs also perished in the fire.
"They (Castros) were very well-liked by everybody who knew them," Stavrowsky said. "Without exception, everybody we talked to in the neighborhood is thunderstruck and horrified by what happened. They were the nicest people on the face of the Earth."
Police Chief Kris Anderson said an unattended-death case such as this is treated like a crime scene. Until forensic aspects are addressed in the autopsy by the Merced County Coroner's Office, officers aren't sure what happened.
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Anderson said the couple's deaths are unsettling. They were longtime Gustine residents, revered by many people.
Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said the sheriff's department Major Crimes Unit and the state fire marshall were still at the scene of the fire Thursday afternoon, collecting evidence. He wouldn't speculate about particulars of the Castros' death.
"I'm not going to make any assumptions or theories of what happened until we do a complete review of the entire house and its contents," Pazin said. "It is still a death investigation. This is a very complex case."
Asked if the Castros' deaths might be related to the Oct. 1, 2006, fire that killed Bill and Lena Chapman in their East South Bear Creek Drive home in Merced, Pazin said he wouldn't speculate, that the only parallels are that both cases involved fires.
In the Chapman case, the elderly couple was murdered, and police say the killers set the fire to destroy the evidence.
Stavrowsky said both Castros were retired. She had worked for Morningstar Foods at one time. They had lived in their home for more than 40 years.
The Castros are survived by two daughters who live nearby and Tina Castro's sister in Sacramento. Stavrowsky said there was little fire damage to the exterior of the residence, but the interior of the home is "pretty damaged." The fire ultimately reached into the home's attic before it was extinguished.
Judy Gandy, secretary at the Gustine Chamber of Commerce, said she had known the Castros, friends of her mother's, all her life. "I heard about this early this morning. They were very nice people, and I just know it's a tragedy," Gandy said.
Anderson, the police chief, had high praise for the sheriff's department. He said the sheriff's office has been responsive and competent in handling matters not usually within the scope of a small city with "fairly modest means."
Pazin said he understands the limitations of smaller police agencies, noting it's not unusual for the sheriff's office to lend a helping hand when asked.
Anderson contacted Pazin shortly after the 7:31 p.m. fire was reported.
Stavrowsky said the chief instituted a policy about a year ago that police routinely respond to fire calls in the city so they can quickly react to emergencies.
The Gustine Police Department has a 10-member force, with two officers now on leave and the vacancies covered by reserves.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.